Well, The Sewing Group is a brave curiosity, for sure. Almost like a riddle, this play from the always-innovative E.V. Crowe examines the relentless march of human progress through the set-up of a small sewing group in 17th Century rural England.
Lights go up and we see two women (Jane Hazlegrove and Sarah Niles), clothed in pious black, silently working on pieces of embroidery in a stripped bare cabin. We watch, yet nothing is said. The women glance at each other… then look away, turning back to their sewing. Lights go down.
Lights go up again and a stranger has come to town. We are told that this new woman (Fiona Glascott) has moved to the village. The two women with their embroidery look at each other, saying nothing. Then return to their sewing. Lights go down.
Lights go up, and the new woman has taken a stool and pulled it up to the other two women. She tries to copy them, asking questions about the village, the crops… But nothing. The other women remain calm and quiet, intently focused on their sewing. This place is a sanctuary, a form of meditation through sewing, and that must not be disturbed. Lights go down.
And so it continues. Short scenes, maybe only seconds long, as we see the new joiner try to integrate herself into the group. With each lights up, she tries another angle, another tactic, to encourage the two other women to talk. The progress she makes is slight but slowly, slowly, the other women begin to open up.
It draws you in. The pace from director Stewart Laing is perfect. The scenes steadily get longer, more is revealed, conversations begin to develop. But you soon realise that something is askew. Some of the dialogue is out of place – the words modern and contemporary – and the odd scene is repeated with lines said by different characters.
Little is as it seems.
If you’ve read other reviews or seen social media, you’ll know there is a big twist in this play. And I’m not going to spoil it for you here. But what can I talk about in this play?
Well, it’s damn clever, very astute and well observed. For this is a play about progress, about the human desire to always move forward. For what happens here is that the new joiner, Maggie, gets increasingly frustrated with the sewing. What’s the point of it, she cries? The sewing must mean something.
So, she takes over, corralling the ladies to challenge themselves with new thread colours, new patterns, to stop working on pretty pieces and make quilts for the community. Because it all has to have a purpose. When humans work, they work to make a difference, to improve life and the lot of their community. So, that is what The Sewing Group must do as well – it must find purpose in its work. It must become part of this march of progress; it cannot sit outside of it.
Eventually the story reveals itself but even after the puzzle has been solved, there is a lingering sense of a powerful theme here – that this unrelenting puruit of change, whilst it brings development and modernity, also leaves a lot of collateral damage along the way.
Royal Court Theatre, London, to December 23, 2016
Tickets from £12.
All photos credited to Stephen Cummiskey